When the latest novel by James Hynes opens, its protagonist Kevin Quinn is on a plane, landing in Texas, for a job interview. He’s thinking (worrying) about terrorist attacks. He’s imagining the most grisly, horrible ways that a terrorist could shoot down the plane from ground-level and kill them all. It’s interesting, I suppose, and perhaps it captures the fears that many people have (or had more intensely right after 9/11), but it makes for unpleasant reading. Of course, it’s not like Hynes wants you to feel comfortable and safe.
Then the book picks up some steam. The plot is strange: Kevin shows up very, very early for his job interview, and decides to kill five hours by wandering around Austin aimlessly, following (she is unaware, so it’s rather creepy) a hot Asian girl he met on the plane, while recollecting past women in his life. It’s passably entertaining and where it shines is in the writing about interpersonal relationships. For example, here’s Kevin remembering when his past girlfriend left him. He was in the bathtub and she came in to tell him that she was seeing someone else, and that she would be moving out of the apartment she shared: “He really wanted to fuck her right there in the tub, the way they used to, in a rubbery tangle of limbs and bumping elbows and splashing water.” That’s very good writing, and not just because of the diction and cadence but because it’s true: two people are almost never on the same page at the same moment, and it hurts. Then: “He was filled with sorrow at the thought that he’d already made love to this woman, whom he used to love and maybe still did, sorta, kinda, for the last time.” Very good.
I should also mention that it’s a very funny novel, at times (overall, when the subject matter and tone, and ending are considered, it’s very much not funny at all, but seriously depressing). I constantly found myself agreeing with Kevin’s thought process and internal ranting, as in here when he rails against Whole Foods-type places (Hynes doesn’t actually name Whole Foods): “Jesus Christ, thinks Kevin… Charcuterie? Can’t they just say ‘deli meats’ like a normal grocery store? Even the buffet he’s stepped up to can’t just be a buffet—GOURMET FLAVORS says the sign. He swipes his hand over his hair—damp with sweat—and blows out a sigh, as if he’s trying to decide between the heirloom tomato gazpacho or the ancho honey glazed pineapple.” Funny and dead on.
Hynes also writes very well about sex, which is a consensus that Salon confirmed by naming an excerpt from Next its #1 winner of their Good Sex Awards in fiction. It’s a scene in which Kevin has sex with a girl at a party, right outside on the porch, while inside is the girl that he actually wants (he told her earlier in the evening that he liked her and was rejected), and he’s thinking about her as he goes and hoping she can see him and hoping she’s jealous. It’s a very well done scene, seriously a boner-inducing bit of writing, it’s true.
Spoiler alert: Now I want to discuss the ending; continue only if you’ve read it already or don’t care about having it ruined.
Perhaps the fact that I enjoyed (mostly) the middle 200 pages of this 308-page novel should mean that the ending alone can’t possibly be enough to sour the experience for me. But it doesn’t matter: it was.
The ending, which involves a terrorist attack on the building where Kevin happens to be waiting to have his interview, and ends in him and a stranger jumping to their deaths, felt not just upsetting (if that’s all it were, it certainly isn’t enough to not like the book; after all, tragic endings can be satisfying and artful) but forced, unrealistic, and overreaching.
This after seeing blurbs like “You’ll be completely defenseless when Next rips your heart right out” (Ron Charles, WaPo) or “This book arrives at a resolution that makes breathtakingly perfect sense” (Janet Maslin, NYT) and finally, “[the book’s] high-stakes ending… does, ultimately, justify and define the whole” (Claire Messud, NYTBR).
Having seen these, I will say (and call me a bullshitter if you want, but I’m being honest) that after reading the first twenty pages, wherein Kevin worries obsessively over terrorism, I knew that the ending would involve a terrorist attack. It was just too easy, and then Hynes went ahead and did it, and I didn’t feel that my heart was “ripped out,” or that it made “breathtakingly perfect sense,” I only felt a bit cheated. I felt like the ending was trying too hard, tugging on my shirt telling me to cry or feel deeply moved. Yes, yes, I buy the argument that terrorist attacks are horrible, destructive, and unforeseen and that for this reason, the ending is quite plausible, but what’s harder to buy is that this character who just so happened to be thinking, worrying, imagining a horrible terrorist attack all day as he strolled around Texas would indeed get what he most feared and find himself the victim of one.
Read Next for the hot, vividly-written sex, the insightful recollections of botched romance and frustrating relationships, and the hip memories of life at a record store in Ann Arbor. But if you’re going to feel as frustrated and brought down by the momentous, predictable ending as I did, maybe skip it.